Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group, blamed by Saad Hariri for his shock resignation as premier, has grown over the three decades since its founding into a mighty army used by Iran to project regional influence.
Hariri criticized the powerful Shiite movement for its meddling across the Middle East during a televised interview from Saudi Arabia on Sunday, his first media appearance since he stepped down on November 4.
Despite being branded a terrorist organization by the United States and Gulf countries and targeted with economic sanctions, Hezbollah has risen to play a decisive role in regional conflicts.
Hezbollah has participated in Hariri’s government for almost a year.
From Lebanon to Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, the terror organization has matured into Iran’s most useful “tool” — drawing the ire of Tehran’s regional rival Riyadh, analysts say.
‘Most important tool’
“The most important Iranian tool in the region is Hezbollah,” said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut.
Hezbollah has trained Iraq’s powerful Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces, Khashan said, and even has “operatives” in Yemen’s war to back Shiite Huthi rebels targeted by Riyadh.
Combining its military expertise and political savvy, Hezbollah has matured into Iran’s “crown jewel” in the Middle East, said Joseph Bahout at the Carnegie Foundation think tank.
It now serves as a “model” for all Iran-allied groups in the region, from Syria’s pro-regime militias to Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi and the Iran-backed Huthi fighters, Bahout said.
These military ventures formed the crux of Hariri’s criticism of Hezbollah during his landmark interview on Sunday from Riyadh.
Breaking his silence more than a week after his resignation, Hariri called on Hezbollah to commit to Lebanon’s policy to “disassociate” from regional conflicts.
“I tell Hezbollah: It is in your interest, if we want to protect Lebanon… to leave some of the areas that you have entered,” Hariri said.
He zoned in on Yemen, saying Hezbollah’s involvement in the protracted conflict there had drawn Saudi rage: “Did the kingdom have any position towards Hezbollah before the war in Yemen?”
Hariri’s surprise resignation sparked worries that Lebanon would be caught in the crossfire of the bloody, decades-long power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“This resignation indicates Saudi’s will to put a stop to Iran’s expansion,” said international relations expert Karim Bitar.
Hezbollah had become Iran’s “trump card” in the Middle East, added Bitar, of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs.
Since its founding in the 1980s during Lebanon’s grinding war, Hezbollah has relied heavily on Iran for financial, political and military support.
It is the only faction to have retained its arsenal of weapons after the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil conflict in 1990.
Here is a look at the 35-year-old terror group, its sources of power and regional role.
Beginnings and leaders
Hezbollah was formed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 1982 to fight against Israel during the Lebanon War, known by Israel as Operation Peace for Galilee.
Under the leadership of Hassan Nasrallah, who took over in 1992 after his predecessor, Abbas Mussawi, was killed in an Israeli airstrike, the group moved from seeking to implement an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Lebanon to focusing on fighting Israel and integrating into Lebanon’s sectarian-based politics. Nasrallah, now 57, has played a key role in ending a feud among Shiites, focusing attention on fighting Israel and later expanding the group’s regional reach.
Wars with Israel
Hezbollah became the main group firing rockets and launching attacks against Israel and the buffer zone it established in southern Lebanon in 1985. In 1996, Israel began Operation Grapes of Wrath to end the terror attacks.
Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 was hailed as a victory for Hezbollah. In the same year, Hezbollah captured three Israeli soldiers and a businessman in cross-border raids, and later negotiated a swap in 2004, releasing hundreds of prisoners and terrorists.
Then in 2006, Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, sparking a 34-day war that killed 159 Israelis and more than 1,000 Lebanese.
A UN-brokered ceasefire brought thousands of international peacekeeping troops to police the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Hezbollah at home
Hezbollah’s popularity at home didn’t only stem from its opposition to Israel. With a weak Lebanese state, the Iranian-sponsored group, like most other sects, provided a vast array of social services for its supporters, through education, health and social networks. But as the terror group sought more executive and legislative powers following Israel’s 2000 withdrawal, it worked to funnel some of its support through state institutions to reach the broader public.
Another turning point came in 2008, when heavily armed Hezbollah fighters seized control of vast parts of Beirut, flexing its power domestically for the first time. The show of force followed attempts by Lebanon’s Western-backed government to curb the terror group’s influence by dismantling its telecommunication network.
Hezbollah has been the most powerful player in Lebanon’s politics ever since. Saudi Arabia and Iran, which backed opposite sides inside Lebanon, ended a two-year deadlock over electing a president by tacitly approving a power-sharing deal that effectively enshrined Hezbollah’s new powerful role. With that, Hariri, a Sunni, headed a unity government and Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, became president.
Hezbollah sent its gunmen to fight alongside the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2012, providing a significant boost to the overstretched military, and turning the tide of the war. It was also crucial to safeguarding the Shiite terror group’s access to Syria, the land corridor through which it is believed to get its weapons from Iran.
Citing estimates based on diplomatic reports and open-source data, Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at the Century Foundation, said some 20,000 to 30,000 armed men, including 4,000 core fighters as well as local militiamen and tribesmen, are under Hezbollah’s command in the fighting in Syria and Lebanon.
This war has allowed Hezbollah’s fighters to improve their interoperability, working closely with the Russian military and other Iranian-backed militias from Iraq or Afghanistan.
Hezbollah is also believed to have increased its military facilities in Syria’s Qalamoun mountains and in the Golan Heights, as well as throughout Lebanon. It is believed to have built munitions factories there and Israeli officials estimate it has an arsenal of 150,000 missiles.
“It has crossed a military threshold,” Cambanis said. “Hezbollah today possesses a credible deterrent against preemptive war by its opponents.”
Hezbollah backing for Yemen’s Houthi rebels has been harder to prove, though the structure and rhetoric of the Shiite Yemeni group mirrors that of Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia accuses Hezbollah and Iran of providing the Houthis with training and financial support in the stalemated war that is causing a humanitarian disaster.
Saudi authorities said a recently intercepted missile near Riyadh airport, the longest-range yet used by the Houthis, had Iranian markings, confirmed by the Americans. In addition, small arms shipments allegedly from Iran were confiscated before reaching Yemen. And Saudi TV networks have aired what they say was evidence of Hezbollah fighters training the Houthis.
Fears of new war with Israel
There were even fears of a new war with Israel, after Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia last week of asking Tel Aviv to bomb Lebanon.
But any new conflict between Lebanon and its southern neighbor risked spilling over into the broader region, experts have said.
“This time,” said Bahout, “because of the extension in Syria and Iraq, it won’t be a war on Hezbollah only. It will very quickly flare up.”
Nasrallah’s forces could respond to Israeli pressure by striking elsewhere, including the United Arab Emirates or even Saudi Arabia.
For Bitar, a convergence of factors — including “an impulsive Saudi Arabia, backed by an equally, extremely impulsive American president, and rising rhetoric in Israel” — could indicate a war was near.
“But at this stage, we are still in a system where there is mutual deterrence, a balance of terror,” he said.
“The two parties know that an eventual war would be devastating for both sides.”